Why People Ditch Food-Journal Apps

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For people trying to lose weight or just eat a bit healthier, food journals can be a useful tool, both by making it easier to count calories (or other nutritional components of food) and to identify potentially unhealthy habits. The problem, argues a team of researchers from the University of Washington and Georgia Tech led by UW’s Felicia Cordeiro, in a paper from Proceedings of the International ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, is that it’s not an easy thing to stick with. And as a result, many food journalers quit and are unable to garner the benefits they should. In one study they cite, for instance, “only 3% of 190,000 downloads [of a food-journal app] resulted in a person using the mobile food journal for more than one week.”

Why do so many people quit food journaling? To find out, Cordeiro and her team “[combined] a survey of 141 current and lapsed food journalers with analysis of 5,526 posts from community forums” from MyFitnessPal, FatSecret, and CalorieCount. Here are some of their most important insights:

Social features that should be helpful sometimes backfire.
Lots of food-journal apps have exactly the sorts of social features that should, in theory, create positive feedback loops that keep people journaling. Some allow online buddies to comment on entries, for example, providing (hopefully) encouraging feedback. Others achieve this through forums where people can support one another, ask about certain foods, seek out healthy recipes, and so on.

The problem is that while these features can harness users’ social instincts to help keep them diligent about logging their food, when things go wrong, they actually have the opposite effect. “I used to log frequently in the past,” said one FatSecret user, “[but] most of my connections have stopped logging in or are no longer members, so I recently emptied my ‘buddylist.’” Another complained not that his community had grown inactive, but that its members were too successful: “I hate coming on to forums and seeing how much people have lost and I have made barely any progress at all.”

It’s (sometimes) really hard for users to log their food accurately.
Cordeiro and her colleagues found that many users were frustrated by the huge variation in what information is available about foods’ caloric content and other nutritional features. If you’re eating out at a chain restaurant, for example, you can simply pull calorie counts from that chain’s website; but if you’re cooking at home, it can be hard to know what values to enter, and doubly so when you’re using unusual ingredients. If you end up under- or overestimating many of your meals by hundreds of calories, which isn’t hard to do, it largely defeats the purpose of logging your meals in the first place — a fact that many users have caught on to, causing them to become less diligent in their journaling or to quit altogether as a result.

Given that users rated packaged food and fast food as “significantly easier to journal” than other, often-healthier cuisine, there’s also a chance that this gap in nutritional info could create some perverse incentives: Users who want to be diligent may be nudged toward exactly the sorts of fare they’re trying to wean themselves off of.

Food journalers sense that there’s a stigma attached to the practice.
One respondent noted that food journaling is “not always that discreet” — certainly a fair point given that many people spend most of their days at work or in other communal settings, rather than alone in front of a computer or their phone. Another said that the practice can also make certain social gatherings tough: “I had more of a problem with eating out at a friend’s house because I didn’t want to ask for ingredients or mention that I was logging calories.”

Who wants to engage in a habit that fills you with stress about fun nights with your friends? According to the researchers, these sorts of concerns can “[undermine] not only the reliability of [journalers’] journal but also their goals and motivations.”